A Letter From Nigeria, Where Coping With COVID-19 Entails Twitterstorms, Bullets, and Corruption

Once Again Nigerians Will Adapt to Whatever Their New Normal Becomes

A Letter From Nigeria, Where Coping With COVID Entails Twitterstorms, Bullets, and Corruption | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

A danfo driver uses his face mask and hand gloves during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Courtesy of Olukayode Jaiyeola/NurPhoto via Associated Press.

We wake up on a March morning that feels shaken, the air suddenly colder, drained of one energy and infused with another. The numbers from Lagos have increased again. “We have to go now, this is getting serious,” I tell J., who is half asleep. We are alone in a friend’s flat in the small university town we visit for getaways, but it’s time to get back to Big City.

For weeks, all our friends have thought I’m over worrying, overreacting. We pack our things. On the way out of town, we pass the park, where many people are wearing white-and-blue face masks and gloves, armed with bottles of hand sanitizer. J. goes to buy bus tickets, and I take an okada to the nearest pharmacy, all the while worried that being on a motorcycle, my face exposed to the air, is a screaming risk.

“No,” the sales girl tells me, “our own has finished. It’s only in the market that they are selling masks and gloves and sanitizers.” I don’t trust the quality of the health kits in the markets, though, so I return to the park and tell J. that we have to ration the hand sanitizer we had bought before coming, that we have to make it last until we get back to Big City.

We are rattled, when we get to Big City, to find people moving freely, buying, selling, pushing in crowds, as if unconcerned that an airborne disease is ravaging the world and has entered our country. We enter a keke, I start a conversation with the driver and tell him he needs hand sanitizer, J. is irritated that I’m talking to strangers again, and we get to ShopRite. No masks, no gloves; hand sanitizer prices have jumped nearly 300 percent compared to in the Small Town, and we laugh. We check the other big mall. Nothing. And the third big mall. Nothing.

Finally, we give up and go to J.’s apartment. We clean up and debate how much cash to withdraw, because if there is a financial crash, there will be a public rush, and ATMs will be overcrowded. The following day we are in the market, stocking up as if we are preparing for a military siege.

For 17 days, I stay indoors. A third of the population of Big City seems to be moving about freely, and from the balcony I watch with longing. J. steps out occasionally to buy food and supplies. Each time he returns, I greet him at the door with two different hand sanitizers. I worry ceaselessly that we will get sick.

For the next week we are safe, physically. But I am thinking of my father, who has been hospitalized for a different illness. Because of the lockdown, interstate borders are closed; no crossing is allowed except for medical or essential resources. I am unable to see my father. J. keeps me from descending. It will take two dreary weeks, but my father will get better and I will vomit 300,000 Naira—still not the biggest contribution to the bill.

It is as the legendary Fela sang: shuffering and shmiling. Because we have been here before, here several times. Every time things go bad, we shout and say they are going bad, and then we grumble and adapt, and whichever new dysfunction it is becomes our new normal.

My friend, E., invites me to his radio show. I go to the studio and talk about the step-by-step failure of our federal and state governments in combating the pandemic. I keep myself from expressing too much anger that security operatives and hunger are now bigger threats to ordinary Nigerians than an airborne virus. The public is pressing the national and state governments to do something, take responsibility, to actually lead, and soon we have a buzzword: palliatives. But instead of the governments bringing palliatives, security operatives bring bullets and people are shot, killed, for flouting lockdown rules. Why? When the palliatives begin to come, there is a collective sigh of shameful disappointment at what some governments offer: cups of rice, an onion, tomato paste. We are seeing decades-old corruption manifesting.

On social media, a few people suggest that this could be the keg that finally blows Nigeria into a revolution. But most of us understand better: No matter how bad it gets, Nigerians will adapt. It is as the legendary Fela sang: shuffering and shmiling. Because we have been here before, here several times. Every time things go bad, we shout and say they are going bad, and then we grumble and adapt, and whichever new dysfunction it is becomes our new normal.

Nigerian Twitter, that singularly combustible space, buzzes with new trends every few hours. We are debating the announcement of curfews, the military’s harassment of health workers and journalists, the fresh wave of armed robberies in Lagos, the usefulness/uselessness of celebrities. One night, a Nollywood Superstar is seen on video partying in a hall full of people. The backlash is swift and brutal, damning and extensive. The police arrest her. She makes another video explaining: All those people in the first video have been together, safely sheltering in place since before the lockdown. Days later, #TwitterNG is burning again because many government officials gathered to attend a funeral, flouting social distancing rules. All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.

Meanwhile I return to my novel. Now that I know I will finish it in months, I am excited, a contained cyclone, and wary, reminding myself to focus and do the work first, sentence by sentence, feeling by feeling. I revive my reading: several books at once, a section of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life followed by a few chapters of Sally Rooney’s Normal People followed by parts of Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King followed by a portion, because I am throwing back more often, of V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State. I add Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, although I have no intention of finishing it anytime soon.

I’m also spending more and more time on YouTube, looking for songs. A few Afropop songs come on my radar and I am intensely grateful: DopeNation’s “Zanku,” Mayorkun’s “Of Lagos,” AdekunleGold and Kizz Daniel’s “Jore,” Joeboy’s “Call,” Tekno’s “Kata,” Naira Marley’s “Puta Pxta,” R2Bees’ “Sunshine,” and from across the Atlantic, G Herbo’s “PTSD.” The beats transport me.

May comes and J. travels, and I am alone in the apartment, fielding phone calls, surprised at my energy levels. I go on Instagram Live for a literary chat. I resume my morning and evening walks. A few states relax their lockdowns. Everyone knows that infection rates will climb. My worry is having only two medical face masks, which cannot be reused. In a Twitter video, I see that the market closest to me is open and that people without face masks are being turned away. In just ten days, from May 1 to May 10, the country went from 1,000 confirmed cases to more than 4,000.

The next morning, I put on my blue-and-white mask and get to the market only to find all the entrances closed, people gathered at a few, a police van parked at the biggest one. From a vendor, I buy five face masks of different designs and colors. Because most of the material is Ankara, many Nigerians have elevated face-masking into fashion, matching each day’s mask with their clothes. By the time I turn back, some people begin to run. A convoy has parked, big SUVs with glinting black windows, and out steps the Governor. It is a measure of the social climate of our country that these people are running when they see their governor. I walk past, acutely aware that I could be humiliated by the police just for not being rattled. Nothing happens.

That evening, I get in a keke and go to the park. Afterward, I drop off something for a friend in the Small Town and decide to walk home. It is getting darker, the sky a glowing brown. On the road where I saw the Governor earlier, young men are running around bare-bodied, playing football.

I stay indoors for the next two days and step out on the third night to buy food. At a traffic-less junction, boys are playing football, the yellow road lights their mini stadium light. Only a few people are walking; most are seated in front of houses. Something must be wrong. I go to Google. A curfew has been in place for two days, 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., and in my hibernation, I am only just finding out.

I turn back. Near the apartment, I hear sirens. I see a police van racing from where the road bends, and people walking on the street scatter, and I run, flying up the stairs and into the apartment.


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